Talking about death: it's encouraged
Death can be a scary conversation topic and the end of life stage is difficult to navigate.
Olivia Lechniak’s mission is to help people see it differently, and to make the transition as comfortable as possible.
She does this professionally, as a certified end of life doula. She was trained by the Doulagivers Institute. She established Solace Found, LLC, based in Williamsport.
In her role, she supports families in a non-medical capacity and helps them have those difficult conversations about death.
“Death isn’t spoken of, so we don’t know the ins and outs of what to expect, versus if you announce that you’re gonna have a baby. Everybody comes out of the woodwork to share every experience, good and bad,” she said. “But at the end of life and even before, through your life, no one talks about it, so you don’t know what to expect and here you are in those moments. I was trained to be familiar with the stages of end of life and what interventions are helpful and supportive.”
Her duties can be as simple as running errands or creating a comfortable space. She can help families navigate the logistics and paperwork.
But the process could be made easier with a little planning. Julie Steinbacher is an elder care attorney in Williamsport. Her firm, Steinbacher, Goodall, and Yurchak, helps people plan for the end of life and the second half of life, which includes long-term care.
“The most important thing to me is who is your decision maker,” Steinbacher said.
A power of attorney is a legal document that declares one person to be another’s decision-maker, in the event that the appointee is sick and unable to make their own decisions in terms of finance, healthcare, or both.
Steinbacher says if someone doesn’t have a power of attorney and they lose the ability to make decisions for themself, loved ones will have to petition the courts for guardianship.
“Even in a situation where the family gets along with each other, it’s costly, and it also takes a long time,” she said.
If a person dies and they don’t have a will, the state has laws to determine the default decision-maker.
Steinbacher says that communication is hugely important when making second half of life and end of life decisions.
“So once I’ve appointed my decision maker, I can’t expect a piece of paper that says, ‘hey I give this person this power,’ to know what I would have wanted, like what is good living and what decisions would I want to make,” she said.
Lechniak can be the one to start the conversation and think about the details - big or small.
“What smells make you comfortable, calm, happy? What would you like to be smelling at the time of death?” Lechniak said. “Those kinds of things you don’t think about.”
Lechniak says she’s bridging a gap between hospice and family caregiving so that families can focus on being present.
Lechniak first identified the need when she was her nana’s caretaker. She said the dynamic of their relationship shifted.
“It wasn’t that I was seen with less love, but when there are responsibilities on top of that, it kind of blurs that role,” Lechniak said. “The time to make that connection wasn’t there necessarily, because you’re worried about getting X, Y, and Z done.”
Lechniak almost died from COVID-19 in December 2020.
“I was just alone with my thoughts, the thoughts that the end of life put you in the position to have,” she said. “Our legacy, how we want to be seen, what death looks like for each person, those are thoughts I never had before.”
She says that experience reassured her that she wanted to do this professionally.
Solace Found hosts Death Cafe events where people have an open discussion on various topics relevant to death.
“Growing the comfort level with the conversation, because ultimately that can really improve the quality of your death because those conversations have been had,” Lechniak said.
She wants people to not only talk about it, but to celebrate it, too. You only die once.
“My main goal is that the family and the loved one is able to experience whatever they consider a good death, so letting them know the resources and the support I can put in place, but really having them lead the way.”